Desistance in Norway — Panel at Eurocrim 2018

This guest post comes from John Todd, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oslo.

This quick post is to let those heading to the European Society of Criminology conference in Cardiff know that there will be a panel on ongoing desistance research in Norway. The panel is entitled ‘Desistance and penal welfarism: desistance from crime in Norway’ and will be on Friday 15th September at 15.45. There will be three speakers and  Fergus has kindly agreed to act as discussant, giving some comments on each of the presentations.

With the exceptional state of penality in Scandinavia under debate, the panel seeks to outline some key aspects of desistance in the Norwegian context. Do the low imprisonment rates, the humane approach to prisons and probation and the egalitarian culture and social structure observed by John Pratt almost a decade ago create the perfect environment for desistance? Or are the challenges of desistance in Norway similar to those in other states?

The individual papers are as follows:

Welfare, hope and desistance – the interplay of external and internal factors in the early phases of desistance: Emma Villman (University of Oslo)

Much of the research on desistance from crime has focused on either social factors or more subjective causes for change. This dichotomy between the external and the internal has long been criticized, and several attempts to integrate insights from both perspectives have been made. How such an interplay of social and subjective factors initiates and shapes the desistance process is, however, still in need of further conceptualization and theorization.

Using data from a survey on living conditions among prisoners in Norway (N=264), the necessity of an integrated understanding of external and internal factors in the desistance process is stressed. When studying anticipated desistance among Norwegian prisoners, one may find that both subjective and structural factors play a central part in the earliest phases of desistance; not separately, but intertwined in a complex interplay. In contrast to earlier attempts of finding out ”what comes first” in the desistance process, these results indicate that such attempts might give us a somewhat misguided focus. What if it is the interplay itself that initiates the change towards desistance?

Adolescent Desistance: Thomas Anton Sandøy (Norwegian Institute of Public Health)

While much research on desistance focuses on processes of change for repeat offenders during and after imprisonment, this paper analyzes the desistance narratives of young offenders outside the traditional justice system. In Norway, increasing numbers of adolescent drug users have been diverted to alternative justice systems over the last decade. Based on in-depth interviews with adolescents enrolled in programs to refrain from drug use and the workers administering these programs, the paper seeks to identify narrative ‘turning-points’ implicated in the desistance process. The analysis show how the adolescents enter into moral conversations about what ‘truly matters’ in life and how their relationships with family and friends have been affected by their drug use and criminality. The administrators, on the other hand, place a stronger emphasis on the impact of wider societal factors on desistance. Taken together, the narratives display the interplay between subjective commitments (agency), and the role of interventions and social factors (structure) in adolescent desistance.

Talking good: a psychosocial analysis of Norwegian desistance narratives: John Todd (University of Oslo)

This paper seeks to employ insights from psychosocial criminology in order to analyse the narratives of a group of Norwegian desisters. The desistance process is of course complex and each individual’s story will be unique. But desistance also occurs in a social and structural context, with Norway labelled by some observers as one of the last bastions of penal welfarism. It is thus important to analyse how structural, relational and individual factors are narrated as enabling or frustrating change. Narrative analysis of this kind can help us avoid the extremes of structural (‘he came from a broken home’) and psychological (‘she suffers from low self-control’) determinism. This presentation seeks therefore to analyse a set of biographical narrative interviews in order to better understand how the desistance process in Norway is shaped both by the inner, psychic world and the external, social world of those doing the desisting.

Punishment, Rehabilitation and Reintegration

This is the text of my closing plenary address at the British Criminology Conference at Sheffield Hallam University on 8th July 2017.


I want to thank the conference organisers for inviting me to talk to you today; I’ve been at several BSC conferences over the years – and once endured the joys and pains of organising one – so I very much appreciate their efforts and their hospitality. This one has been a lot of fun – and full of stimulation. I haven’t missed a session and I haven’t been at a disappointing one, and that’s a first. It feels as if British criminology is at an important moment and it looks like, for once in my life, I might get the last word. So, no pressure then.

Before I start, I also want to say how delighted I am to find myself following Beth. Indeed, when I was one of her PhD supervisors, I spent a lot of my time, trying to keep up with her. It’s not easy. She has remarkable reserves of energy, intellect and commitment – to which you have just borne witness. I’m very proud to have played even a tiny part in supporting her development. And, in similar vein, I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank my other colleagues – past and present — at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and in Scottish criminology more generally. I say ‘Scottish’, but as I prepared this talk, I realise that, even if I limit myself just to SCCJR’s Glasgow branch,

I’m going to be drawing today on recent conversations with colleagues at all career stages and from places including Chile, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and the USA. That’s Scottish criminology for you; nothing if not cosmopolitan.

Critiques of Desistance

I’ll start where Beth [Weaver] left off — with desistance theory and research, but, with this audience, I’m going to assume a degree of familiarity with the literature and skip the usual discussions of definitions and explanations. I want to jump straight into emerging critiques of desistance research, before looking beyond desistance and towards dystopia and utopia. So, buckle up your belts…

Recently, Pat Carlen – perhaps surprisingly — invited me to contribute a chapter on desistance to her co-edited collection with Leandro Ayres Franca on ‘Alternative Criminologies’. The book has just been published in Portuguese [and now, the English version is out: see].

Hannah Graham (who is another Scottish criminologist – though this time from Tasmania) kindly agreed to write this chapter with me; and we agreed that it would be appropriate in a collection of this sort to try to engage constructively with critical criminological perspectives on desistance. Another Scottish colleague, Alejandro, this time from Spain, would say that what we try to do in that chapter is to enter into a dialogue rather than a debate.

Some critics have begun to suggest that desistance scholars offer a reductionist account of crime and its cessation; one which de-contextualises offending behaviour and, worse, responsibilises individuals for their own desistance and reintegration. In essence, desistance research is seen by some as being ‘too agentic’ — too heavily predicated on individualistic notions of rational actors exercising human agency. Eileen Baldry and Phil Scraton are among the esteemed and respected colleagues who have made these points. To de-contextualise and de-politicise both crime and criminalisation is to belie their construction in and through an unjust social order; thus neglecting and perpetuating the inequalities that drive social injustice.

Hannah and I agree that there are aspects of and applications of desistance research that, if emphasised to the exclusion of other things, risk co-optation with responsibilising and reductionist approaches to punishment and rehabilitation. As desistance scholars, we are painfully aware of the increasingly repetitious use of the catch-cry ‘supporting desistance’, often as though this can be delimited to a set of prescriptions for how criminal justice workers can better support individuals to change or secure their own recovery, rather than looking beyond the individual both for the causes and the solutions of crime and criminalisation related problems.

The ‘too individualistic/too agentic’ critique does usefully highlight a tendency within desistance research to focus on individuals as the primary ‘unit of analysis’, although as Beth’s work demonstrates, there are desistance researchers taking different approaches. That said, there are some good reasons for focusing on the experiences of individuals. Any body of research which decentres or discounts the lived experiences of people in criminal justice processes, while making claims about them – even on their behalf — would lack legitimacy, both methodologically and politically. Instead, the question is how and by whom individual, relational and collective experiences are best to be gathered, represented, understood and explained, with critical emphasis on the reciprocal influences of structure and agency.

In fact, despite the criticisms I have just mentioned, very few desistance scholars advocate rational choice theorisations of desistance. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that most (in the UK at least) routinely reject and challenge reductionist and responsibilising approaches to rehabilitation (as should be obvious from Beth’s talk); that is often one of the reasons why we got into desistance research in the first place. In the UK, desistance research gained momentum as a counter-narrative to ‘what works’ research and related approaches to authoritarian, correctional rehabilitation. Desistance scholars have put considerable intellectual effort into developing sophisticated analyses of the relational, institutional and social contexts of desistance – Stephen Farrall’s work is an excellent example. In this sort of work, understandings of changes in people’s offending are not divorced from but rather linked to changes in life chances and social conditions. Even those commonly identified as identity theorists and sometimes accused of offering accounts that are supposedly ‘too agentic’, like Shadd Maruna or Peggy Giordano, in fact tend to take a social interactionist approach; hence, for example, the importance for Shadd of both labelling and de-labelling processes.

Some feminist critical criminologists have challenged the validity and utility of desistance scholarship on the grounds of its capacity to recognise and respond to diversity and discrimination. Their criticisms centre on the argument that desistance scholarship has ignored gendered differences in processes of crime, criminalisation and desistance from crime – and the patriarchal contexts of these processes. Carlton and Baldry (2013) explain their abolitionist stance in rejecting liberal-reformist discourses of women’s ‘pathways’ in terms of imprisonment and desistance as follows:

Desistance, however, does not escape the criticism we bring to other criminal justice policies and programmes – that they are male centric. All the original desistance studies were conducted with men in the United States and the United Kingdom, so that the framework was built around men’s experiences. At its heart, the desistance approach is male centric, individualistic and ignores the interlocking structural contexts of class, race and gender (Carlton and Baldry, 2013: 65).

Pollack (2012: 107) similarly sees liberal reformist gender-responsive ‘pathways’ approaches as complicit in the ‘hegemonic logic’ of correctionalism which imposes expert notions upon… criminalised women.’ Pollack (2012) argues this is a form of ‘epistemic violence’ which subjugates women’s narratives and identities, and de-politicises the social-structural roots of crime as a social problem using the ideological tools of evidence-based practices to compel these women’s reform, as if they cannot know themselves what they want and need.

While these are important challenges for desistance scholars, I think there are some inaccuracies in these critiques, which perhaps reflect a lack of serious or sustained engagement with the desistance literature and the debates within it. It is true – and it is both important and problematic – that most desistance research, like most criminology, started with and has privileged men’s experiences. But, in contrast to the critics’ claims, the international literature on desistance increasingly highlights issues of diversity, especially in relation to the gendered and racialised structural contexts of crime, criminalisation and desistance. Indeed, even a cursory reading of some of the key desistance studies reveals the inclusion of girls and women as research participants (see Liebrich, 1993; Graham and Bowling, 1995; Maruna, 2001; Giordano et al., 2002; Blokland and Nieuwbeerta, 2005; Smith and McVie, 2003; McAra and McVie, 2009; Farrall, 2002; Farrall and Calverley, 2006; Farrall et al., 2014).

And, also contrary to these critics’ claims, there has in fact been a proliferation of scholarship on gender in critically understanding both desistance and re/integration (for example, Sommers, Baskin and Fagan, 1994; Uggen and Kruttschnitt, 1998; McIvor, Murray and Jamieson, 2004; Rumgay, 2004; Leverentz, 2006, 2014; King et al., 2007; Søgaard et al., 2015).

Others, have used intersectionality, critical race and post-colonial theories to explore relationships between ethnicity, racialisation and desistance (for example, Calverley, 2013; Glynn 2013, 2015), including in relation to indigenous people’s experience of criminal justice in Canada (Deane, Bracken and Morrissette, 2007) and Australia (Marchetti and Daly, 2016; Halsey and Deegan, 2016).

More generally – and somewhat ironically — the critics sometimes write as if desistance is a singular approach – as opposed to a body of work full of internal conflict. Worse still, they confuse desistance theories and research with a particular criminal justice policy or programme of reform. Policies and programmes can be desistance-oriented in that they can be (1) pointed to that purpose and/or (2) informed by desistance theories and research. However, most desistance scholars think of desistance as a process that belongs to the people going through it, irrespective of which criminal justice professional(s) they interact with or which sanction is imposed upon them, if any. To say this, however, is not to support individualisation and responsibilisation. Indeed, it is intended to hold states, civil societies, justice systems and practices to account for their roles in supporting or frustrating, allowing or denying these processes – both in material and in symbolic terms. It is to these responsibilities that I now want to turn.

Beyond Desistance?

The critiques that I have just mentioned – whatever their limitations — represent a useful challenge to aspects of desistance research and of its criminal justice applications. However, I think that desistance research itself may have begun to do a better job of exposing its own limitations and contradictions, initially by beginning to confront the question of what, if anything, lies beyond desistance from crime? If, as is often argued, desistance is a process of development, what is it supposed to lead to? What kind of human flourishing lies beyond desistance from crime?

We need to look no further than this city to grasp the importance of these questions; the Sheffield Desistance Study highlights them in a particularly bleak and powerful way. Tony Bottoms (2013) has argued that, in that study, some people desisted through a form of extreme ‘situational self-binding’ which amounts effectively to the self-imposed incarceration of social isolation. Although Bottoms (2013) notes that this was a rare phenomenon in the Sheffield study, evidence from other studies suggests that it is not so unusual for those whose desistance processes lack personal and social support.

Adam Calverley’s (2009) exploration of ethnicity and desistance, for example, suggests that Black and Dual Heritage men in one London borough faced the greatest structural and cultural obstacles to desistance — and that they too tended to desist through self-isolation.

Two recent Scottish studies of very different populations have produced even clearer accounts of what we might perhaps call ‘dystopian desistance’. Marguerite Schinkel is a Scottish criminologist from the Netherlands, Her study focussed on people who were serving or had served long prison sentences. Briege Nugent is a Scottish criminologist from the north of Ireland. Her study of marginalised young people exiting an intensive support service — also found common ‘pains of desistance’ linked to social isolation and the failure to secure work, connection and belonging. These findings certainly paint a depressing and dystopian picture of life after desistance, at least for some people. In a sense, they expose the taken-for-grantedness of the assumption that ending offending is a ‘good’ outcome. Not offending may be a good outcome in the sense that it means less harm for society and for potential victims, but if it entails increases in the suffering of the person desisting (and perhaps of those closest to her or him) then, even on a cold utilitarian logic, the value of this outcome remains uncertain.

Sarah Anderson’s ongoing doctoral research at Glasgow makes an important and novel contribution to this line of argument. Her PhD explores the life histories of men who have experienced repeated trauma, offending and criminalisation and who are struggling to make some kind of recovery. Sarah’s painstaking analysis is beginning to show how the structural and symbolic violence of repeated criminalisation contributes to a cumulative traumatisation which undermines their fragile efforts to desist and, more generally, to build better lives for themselves and those they care most about. And in relation to these loved ones, other important work in Scotland by Cara Jardine, Rebecca Foster and Kirsty Deacon has exposed and is exposing how this structural and symbolic violence reverberates in their lives too.

Ultimately, this leads Sarah to ask whether desistance from crime is really the central issue at stake in these narratives – it is certainly not central to the way many of the men relate their stories. Their struggles are as much struggles for recovery from criminalisation and penalisation as struggles to stop offending. For others – despite histories of offending and criminalisation — both are marginal issues in their day-to-day fight for survival. There may well be things about these men themselves – long-established habits and patterns of thought and behaviour – that they need and want to change; but what they need most is change in long established habits and patterns of criminal justice thought and behaviour; and, perhaps even more importantly, change in the ways that we think and behave as a society.

For me, this is the most significant current challenge to and critique of desistance research – and it emerges from within it, from honestly following the data where it leads, and from examining the process as it is related by people living it. The irremediable problem with talking about desistance is that it accepts offending as the main issue at stake; sometimes forgetting those lessons from Criminology 101 about the way that social structures shape who and what gets criminalised – and in whose interests. I think I am perhaps still enough of a ‘left realist’ to accept that offending is an important issue and that striving to reduce it is a good thing. But it seems that desistance research is itself telling us that the real problems are – fittingly for a conference about ‘Forging Social Justice’, hosted in a post-industrial city – problems of social inequality and social injustice as refracted and amplified through criminalisation and penalisation. In other words, it seems that it is we – the criminalisers, the penalisers, the punishers, the excluders – that need to desist. But how?

Rethinking Rehabilitation

How are we to be supported in our desistance; how are we to be rehabilitated? Critical criminologists have also – again quite rightly – challenged criminology’s and criminal justice’s pre-occupation with these ‘re-words’.

Re-formation. Re-habilitation. Re-integration. Re-settlement. Re-entry. In French, Re-insertion. In German, Re-socialisation. The common arguments are, first, that these words spring from the (philosophically) liberal assumption that there is a just order in which the ‘offender’ was once habilitated, integrated and settled and, secondly, by implication, that the challenge is replacing him or her in that social order; making him or her fit back in. To put this more figuratively – we focus on reshaping the ‘offender’ and/or on reshaping the gap, but we don’t see the bigger picture of the structures that shape both the square peg and the round hole.

A third – and again related — critique – which we’ve been discussing of late in the SCCJR – concerns the ways in which these terms themselves represent a form of symbolic domination through language; one which has material consequences for those who are its objects. This is not their language or the language of their experiences; it is the self-justifying rhetoric of the system that ensnares them.

How might we respond? We could abandon these terms – but I think that risks both surrendering these terms to others within the criminal justice system and marginalising ourselves in public dialogue and debate. My preference – and my approach – has been to interrogate and seek to redefine these terms; to challenge not the words themselves but the ways in which they are understood and employed. Indeed, drawing on desistance research, I have argued that we need to develop models, policies and practices that attend not so much to ‘correctional’ understandings of rehabilitation aimed at individual transformation, as to mutual moral reparation, to judicial rehabilitation linked to restored civil rights and status, and to social integration too.

As well as reframing the meanings of these terms, a second response to the problem of symbolic domination may be – as already suggested – to flip the lens and apply these terms to the power-holders and the privileged – or better still, to all of us. To borrow from one of John Braithwaite’s memorable criminological contributions – but maybe applying it more to Valerie Braithwaite’s usual targets – a process of reintegrative shaming might be overdue for institutions, systems, practices and people who are the perpetrators of the injustices that uneven criminalisation and penalisation and enduring exclusion exacerbates. Perhaps we all need to confronted and shamed by our differing degrees of complicity in and responsibility for these systemic ‘crimes’, before we can be dissociated from our offences and reintegrated.

To teach us about that process, I look to the work of another colleague at the University of Glasgow – Professor Alison Phipps, holder of a recently established UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts. Alison is what she calls a new Scot, having migrated from England herself. Her conception of refugee integration in avowedly ‘multilateral’; I cannot integrate you and you cannot integrate me. A guest does not integrate a host, nor a host a guest. We integrate together or not at all; as Beth might put it, and as her work so beautifully demonstrates, we have to accept, embody and practice mutual responsibility for creating community through solidarity and subsidiarity. In this sense, my rehabilitation is your rehabilitation and yours is mine. Either we figure out how to live together or we live apart.

When I shared this talk with Hannah a few days ago, she pointed me to this quote from Zygmunt Bauman, offered during one of his last interviews at age 90 last year:

“Divisions and conflicts between people are as old as humanity. There was always an intermixing process of integration and separation. Separation was always the guiding instrument of the integrating effort. If you wanted to integrate people, you have to point to their joint enemy, joint other… The stranger who is against ourselves that we need to watch and be vigilant and to defend ourselves [against]. For the first time we are in a situation where we have to commit to the next step on the road to integration without separation. The next step is a step towards people who are in a cosmopolitan situation. There are no remaining enemies against whom we will integrate. It’s a new situation that is unpracticed and untested so far. That’s what makes our present moment… on the one side, so terrifying, and on the other, so exciting.” [Source:]

How is this work of integration without separation to be done? It is no accident that Alison Phipps’ academic background is in anthropology and linguistics as well as education; and it is no accident that she has come to recognise the value of the arts as common languages through which integration is enabled, practised and represented.

In the abstract that I provided months ago and which, inconveniently, made its way into the conference programme, I promised at this point to discuss a new project called ‘Distant Voices: Coming Home’, recently funded by the ESRC and AHRC – but I fear that time will defeat me if I allow myself start to talk about this exciting partnership with Vox Liminis (a third sector organisation) and with Jo Collinson Scott (a musicologist from the University of the West of Scotland) and Oliver Escobar (a political scientist from the University of Edinburgh). Suffice it to say that this 3-year project, which has just begun, seeks to blur the boundaries between creative practice, community development, research and knowledge exchange. Its focus is on re/integration, but not the reintegration of individuals who have been punished; rather we aim to explore and influence whether, how and to what extent, a wide range of different actors – ourselves included – can build or rebuild community both during and after state punishment.


 As I said earlier, Carlen and Franca’s collection is concerned with ‘Alternatives Criminologies’. In a conference on Forging Social Justice, it seems fitting that I finish in this utopian vein. At the end of his challenging talk yesterday, Simon Winlow did ask us for a bit of criminological vision yesterday. This is all I’ve got so far.

Lately, both in Scottish sociology (for example in the work of another Glasgow colleague, Matt Dawson) and in Scottish criminology (in the work of Lynne Copson, Margaret Malloch and Bill Munro), there has been a resurgence of interest in utopia not just as critique but also as method. The work of Ruth Levitas has been one important inspiration in these debates. Levitas defines utopia as ‘the expression of the desire for a better way of being or of living’ (Levitas 2013: xii). She argues that visions of utopias can be developed as compensation for an unjust status quo (as in some religious utopias); as critique of how things are (by contrast with how they might be); and as more or less clearly articulated programmes of change (Levitas, 2000; see Dawson, 2016). Levitas’ (2013) work on utopia also argues the need for an archaeology — one that excavates the vision of the good society implicit in any given utopia; for an ontology — one that explores the utopia’s assumptions about human nature; and for an architecture of how the utopia is to be built in practice.

In the assessment that Hannah and I offer in our book chapter, despite the variety of views it encompasses, research on desistance and rehabilitation often shares a common implicit ontology; it asserts and it evidences the positive potential of human subjects and sees them as fundamentally social beings that are capable of growth and development, in the right circumstances. As such it undermines criminal justice responses (and social attitudes) that seek to define and to ‘other’ people with reference to their offending behaviour.

To a certain extent, desistance research and rehabilitation research have also offered ‘architectures’ of reform. But these designs, as I have said, vary greatly and are highly disputed both within and between the two literatures; they are even more disparate in the sometimes diverse and contradictory programmes of policy practice reform they have spawned. For some, like Beth and me, I think, the architecture of desistance has arguably moved beyond (and even away from) a focus on criminal justice policy and practice reform to include the development of a much more expansive — but still very young and under-developed — social movement.

What desistance and rehabilitation theories both perhaps lack, however, is a well-developed ‘archaeology’. So long as they begin with the assumed problems of offending and of ending offending rather than with what lies before, behind and beyond these problems and their construction, they will lack a well-articulated vision of the good society. But having said that, as I hope this session has illustrated, by exploring how people build better lives together, desistance research, like much of criminology, eventually forces us — through careful theoretical, empirical and normative work — to explore how we can build better communities and better societies. Increasingly, it makes clear that these questions cannot, should not and must not be separated.

And that’s the challenge, I think for contemporary criminology. It’s not just that we have to escape an uncritical focus on a narrow range of currently criminalized social harms, as the zemiologists argue. It is also that we need, I think, to offer much more than critique; we need to contribute constructively to imagining the architecture of a just social order. That may be a job for Simon Winlow’s radical economists and for political philosophers but, as criminologists, perhaps our unique contribution can be to articulate how a just social order might respond to wrongdoing (of all sorts) in ways that provide more than mere harm reduction. We need to offer responses that create and are constitutive of the conditions under which individual and collective human flourishing are made more possible, rather than constituting and exacerbating the conditions under which many people, families, groups, communities and societies suffer and decay.

We need a manifesto for the many, not the few, as someone said recently.

Rehabilitation through Education? An apotheosis of a ‘hook for change’

In his second guest post, Kris McPherson reflects further on his own experiences of rehabilitation through education, raising important questions not just about personal development in prison but also about prison regimes and social attitudes.

The evolution of behavioural and attitudinal reform is different for every person who embarks upon the desistance journey. However, a commonality appears to be that those who have the greatest success in sustaining desistance are people who utilise something termed a ‘hook-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002, cited in McNeill and Weaver, 2010). Succinctly, a ‘hook-for-change’ functions as a catalyst that initiates the desistance process for people who have previously been involved in offending behaviour. It is a foundation for which successful desistance is built.

My first ‘hook-for-change’ was academic education.

Fortunately, I have always been very captivated and intrigued by various forms of knowledge throughout my life. As a young boy, I voraciously read about subjects of all kinds. I studied maps, atlases and foreign language books to quench my insatiable thirst for insights into distant lands. I can name just about any capital/major city from the top of my head as well as being able to instantaneously point to places on a map as a result of poring over these maps and atlases. I used to sit and read the dictionary in class, looking for obscure words I hadn’t heard of before.

Knowledge has always been important to me.

I continued to purchase books and visit the local library during my ‘offending years’, which some thought peculiar for a person who behaved like I did (perhaps revealing their own stereotypical biases vis-à-vis the idiosyncrasies of those who offend). The irony is that people have persistently told me throughout my life that I am intelligent but ‘never used it for the right reasons’ (by which I assume they mean ‘legal reasons’). In fact, my nearest library was located within the stomping ground of a rival gang and yet I risked my physical safety in order to feed my over-active and deeply analytical brain. I am unsure whether this says something about my recklessness or more about my insatiable desire for knowledge. I also ended up forming a relationship with a girl from this same area, further complicating matters.

My Dad died suddenly as I was about to turn fourteen, resulting in me becoming deeply immersed in offending behaviour. I never spoke of his death with anyone (even family members) and now wonder if my offending behaviour was my own way of speaking about it? In other words, I suspect that the suppressed, unexpressed rage and emotional damage in relation to my Dad’s death mutated into a pathology that found expression through criminal acts. The commission of criminal actions achieved applause and reverence from my peers, which only fed my desire to appear powerful and indestructible when, in reality, I was the complete opposite – powerless and concealing a fractured heart and a psychically damaged soul. Looking back in reflection, I wonder if my raison d’être at that time (gang-focused offending and reputation building) was fuelled by the projection of my subconscious, latent rage and anguish vis-à-vis my Dad’s death on to those people from rival areas who conducted themselves in a fashion similar to myself?

The beauty of hindsight… and insight.

Sadly, the degree of my criminality mushroomed to the extent that I was incarcerated for four years at the age of fifteen. My behaviour, while contained within the institutional setting, still caused concern as I continued to dig a deeper hole for myself. The way I saw it back then was that I may have been the one digging the hole but the culture around me and my limited life chances handed me the shovel. As you can imagine, I did not pursue formal education during this spell in custody but still did much reading.

I was still wading through the turbid sludge of vengeful thinking and criminality.

Upon release, I picked up where I had left off in the community vis-à-vis criminality. However, I noticed that my peers were even more deferential towards me and I relished this at the time. It was as though I had returned from the moon or a war in some far off nation, held up by my peer group as an example for others to replicate. This may illustrate ways in which some people in lower-income neighbourhoods like mine function view such behaviour. By the time I received my current prison term at the age of twenty-one, I knew I had to do something before I ended up with a life sentence or worse.

That is where my hook-for-change (education) came in.

As I was now in an adult prison, I was in a better position to pursue higher education and this is exactly what I did. The minute I landed in HMP Shotts, I asked the learning centre staff what I had to do to gain acceptance for the Open University. After passing the prerequisite courses, I was accepted to do a degree and so began my odyssey of deep, analytical reflection, questioning and critical analysis of not only who I was then but who I wanted to be and where I wanted my life to go in the future. As the desistance literature explains (see: McNeill and Weaver, 2010; McNeill, 2014, for examples), my identity gradually shifted and I ceased to see myself as a serious criminal. Instead, I viewed myself as a serious student and (one day) an aspiring academic with something to contribute to society, utilising academia as the vehicle within which to realise this.

My academic addiction grew exponentially like some tropical virus and my daily reading material went from tales of drug lords and Mafia kingpins to classical literature (Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is probably my favourite!), academic analyses of political leaders and the political mechanisms of foreign nations. I wrote a play and novel (crime-fiction) which, although not published yet, received a lot of praise from teachers and academics alike.

I continued my fascination for languages. I actually bought my first Italian dictionary at the age of twelve and sought to expand my knowledge of the language now that I had enough time to do so. I mastered the Cyrillic/Russian alphabet in two days but the Arabic alphabet took me around eight months to learn. I saw these advanced, enigmatic languages as a challenge and was fascinated by their unusual characters and symbols. However, my knowledge of Russian and Arabic are nowhere near my level of Italian.

I hope one day this will change.

I do feel fortunate that I have been able to use my prison time to study in this manner. While academic education in prison contributed to my identity shift, in other prison systems people are not so fortunate as to have their education paid for by the authorities. Wacquant (2002) cites how the American prison system prohibited inmates from pursuing academic studies (through Pell Grants subsidies) regardless of the fact that it has been proven to reduce recidivism and enhance prison stability. The reason for discontinuing higher education in American prisons was cited as the ‘illegitimate draining of public finances’ (Wacquant, 2002, p.22).

If higher education reduces recidivism, maintains prison stability and, in my own personal experience, precipitates an identity shift from ‘offender’ to (aspiring) ‘scholar’ then why withdraw funding? How could the education of uneducated people be called ‘illegitimate?’ Surely the ‘richest superpower on earth’ can afford to educate willing inmates? Uncle Sam’s message to American prisoners seems to be “I won’t invest in your ‘hook-for-change!’”

Regardless of the social impact in the future.

Now that I have only just completed my criminology degree, I am fortunate enough to have developed an extreme interest in reading academic research papers (I literally have stacks of them in my cell). These are the skills I hope to use as another ‘hook-for-change’ to extract myself from the “fissures and ditches” of what Wacquant (2010a, p.199) called the “organizational mesh of the dualizing metropolis”.

According to Wacquant (2010a, p.199), “Welfare revamped as workfare and the prison stripped of its rehabilitative pretension now form a single organizational mesh flung at the same clientele mired in the fissures and ditches of the dualizing metropolis. They work jointly to invisibilize problem populations – by forcing them off the public aid rolls, on the one hand, and holding them under lock, on the other – and eventually push them into the peripheral sectors of the booming secondary labor market”.

Perhaps this is a major hindrance to desistance?

It is clear that people like myself who choose desistance do have a major role to play. But I cannot do it all on my own. As McNeill and Weaver (2010) argue, those who commit to desistance can only do so much by themselves. Sooner or later, society has to step up to the plate and absorb people back into the fold of daily life through employment and other forms of social participation in order for them to transcend desistance to the extent that it is not a matter of simple desistance but true reformation.

At what point does desistance become a part of you?

While McNeill and Schinkel (2015) state that it is impossible to ascertain the moment from which any behaviour ceases permanently, one wonders whether we can use Maruna and Farrall’s (2004) ideas of ‘primary desistance’ and ‘secondary desistance’ (cited in McNeill and Schinkel, 2015) to understand the period from which offending behaviour ceases and desists. According to Maruna and Farrall (2004), primary desistance refers to a shift in the idiosyncratic pattern while secondary desistance alludes to a transformation in identity (cited in McNeill and Schinkel, 2015). Furthermore, McNeill and Schinkel (2015) put forward the notion of ‘tertiary desistance’, which involves the person’s sense of belonging within a ‘moral, social and political society’.

From a personal viewpoint, this sounds completely logical.

Furthermore, McNeill and Weaver (2010) postulate a three-step process in the desistance journey which appears to parallel the primary, secondary and tertiary steps. These include the motivation to change, the capacity to reinforce change and the opportunities to realise transformation. The first two highlight a certain degree of human agency although may be initiated by external dynamics. The third element stresses the importance of society’s role in supporting the inclusion of people who have offended. At the present time, one could argue that potential desisters are expected to conform to societal norms and regulations without participation or realisation of all the society can offer to those seeking personal, moral, social or political growth.

But how can the neoliberal ‘Leviathan’ (Wacquant, 2010a, p.201) expect the marginalised and disenfranchised people caught up in the carceral/welfare nexus to conform to the “obligations of citizenship” without conferring upon them the “rights of citizenship?” How do we initiate the ‘responsibilisation’ of those in power to accept their own role, as McNeill (2017) argues, in the desistance process?

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) reported that 80% of prisoners were unemployed prior to their incarceration (Scottish Executive, 2015) with it being eight times more difficult for an ex-offender to obtain employment post-release. The greatest factor in someone being refused employment was given as declaration of a criminal record (Scottish Executive, 2015). If those who have returned to the community from prison cannot find legal ways to support themselves then doesn’t this spell recidivism? Isn’t successful prisoner re-entry paramount in the desistance process?

Surely the above percentage highlights the importance of ‘tertiary desistance?’

In fact, Wacquant (2010b, p.612) asks, “How could former prisoners be re-integrated when they were never integrated in the first place and when there is no viable social structure to accommodate them outside” (emphases added). This points to a much bigger context in which those who offend are marginalised to the extent that many of them can’t/won’t desist because they feel that their options are extremely constricted. Surely this is where McNeill’s (2015) idea of ‘tertiary desistance’ comes into play? Perhaps the final destination of desistance is the “promise of equal opportunity, social justice, individual freedom and citizenship rights for all” (Garland, 2001, p.67).

I would argue that this is indeed the case.

But even though I was committed to higher education in prison, I felt that the penal bureaucracy refused to believe (or were at least extremely sceptical) that I could truly change. Realising this made me question whether I would ever be given a chance to ‘turn the corner’ and I spent many hours in silent reflective analysis on this point. I felt somewhat conflicted also due to the fact that I was serious about change yet had to live by the ‘inmate code’ (at least to an extent).

When I went to HMP Low Moss in early 2012, I met the most amazing and wonderful teaching staff that I have ever met in my life. I told them how much I wanted to leave my past behind but was frustrated by obstacles at every turn such as zero prospects of employment and being marginalised by the well-earned stigma that I had created for myself as an ignorant, angry and psychically damaged young man. I told the teachers that it was my newfound ambitions to (a) matriculate into Glasgow University and (b) to volunteer to work for the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). The VRU (incase you have never heard of them) is an organisation set up by the Scottish police in 2005 to tackle gangs/knife crime.

These teachers (some of whom have since left this particular institution) ignited my motivation, helped me see that I possessed the capacity to sustain change as well as putting in place the opportunities that would be the silver bullet required to neutralise the proverbial werewolf of my past offending activities. By positively reinforcing my motivation, my teachers made me feel like a valued person rather than an offender, which led to the realisation that I had the capacity to foster a lifestyle transplant whereas before I was hesitant about the whole process. Perhaps the real reason for my hesitation was that I had no opportunities to provide the bridge from persistence to desistance. These teachers showed me the way to that bridge. I love them for the warmth, acceptance and altruistic kindness they showed me (if any of you are reading this – you know who you are).

Before I crossed paths with these teachers, I was wrestling with much inner conflict vis-à-vis criminality and the course my life was taking. I wanted to desist but didn’t want to end up with nothing but the ‘pains of desistance’ (Nugent and Schinkel, 2015) for company. In my opinion, this would be akin to swapping one incarceration for another more subtle form of prison. I was worried of being locked in social purgatory between the criminalised world and the non-criminalised world. I definitely credit those teachers, coupled with the birth of my son in 2011, with catalysing my decision to commit to desistance as a way of life. Academic work is the tools I use to achieve this. The only thing I can compare it to is people who ‘find’ religion; I look at academia in the same way.

Academia is my religion.

These days, I do not see myself as I did all of those years ago. I feel that I am shedding the skin of my former way of life thanks to my education, coupled with the periods of deep, critical reflection. I comprehend the damage I did not only to others but also to myself. I have never admitted to or spoken of any of the stuff that I am writing here now for the simple reason that I am slightly stoic. I accept responsibility for my transgressions and see absolutely no point complaining about the mess I made.

In my opinion, refusal to accept responsibility is ‘conduct unbecoming’ of what it means to be a man. Now that I have my own son, I feel that I must be an example to him and show him how not to act – but also how to carry himself as an adult. My Dad did not show me any of these things. I had to learn them for myself – the hard way. Perhaps it is fortunate that my son came into the world in the twilight of my criminality and not during the dawn. The last thing I would ever wish for would be for him to be exposed to anything I experienced during my formative years.

After all, today’s children are tomorrow’s adults.

Now I am older and wiser, which I attribute to my deeply reflective and analytical nature. These idiosyncrasies have served me well in my academic pursuits. Rather than realising notoriety through criminality, my new raison d’être is to show the very small group of people who believe in my transformation that I am worthy of their support. Moreover, I want to form and sustain the deep and rewarding emotional attachments that all humans desire through friendships, romance and things like this. My previous experiences of such ‘relationships’ were built on rather dubious, fragile foundations where one’s friend could turn into a nemesis literally overnight. I think this has affected me to a certain degree but has definitely not rendered me misanthropic.

Rather, I have simply buried my emotions and do not find it easy to take off my mask. My pathological wrath has dissipated and my powers of empathy have significantly developed since my ‘offending days’. Back then, my inability to empathise (or rather my unwillingness to do so) sheltered the straw house I had built in my head to protect myself from the impact and lasting effects of criminality. That same straw house has been blown away, leaving me with the mental, emotional and physical scars of the past. The physical wounds have long since healed but the mental and emotional ones are stark reminders of not only the damage I have done to others but also that which I have done to myself.

In my view, the learned helplessness of my formative years, braided with a denial of powerlessness, metastasised into a lust for powerfulness vis-à-vis gang criminality. This consumed my being and fuelled the rage embedded within my subconscious that was borne of my Dad’s death and issues with my biological mother. Now that I am a Dad, I must ensure that my beautiful, innocent six-year-old son does not grow up with the same deeply fissured, scarred heart.

After all, I have only just sewn mine back together.


Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at: 

McNeill, F. (2014) ‘Punishment as Rehabilitation’, in Bruinsma, G. and Weisburd, D. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Springer, New York: 4195–4206.

McNeill, F. and Schinkel, M. (2015) ‘Prisons and Desistance’ in Jewkes, Y. and Bennett, J. (eds.) Handbook on Prisons, Portland, Oregon: Willan.

McNeill, F. (2017) ‘Punishment, Rehabilitation and Reintegration’, British Criminology Plenary Address, Sheffield Hallam University, 8th July 2017.

Nugent, B. and Schinkel, M. (2016) The Pains of Desistance’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Volume 16(5): 568–564.

Scottish Executive (2015) ‘Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974’, Scottish Executive, 20th May 2015 [online]. Available at: Accessed 10th April 2017.

Wacquant, L. (2002) ‘Four Strategies to Curb Carceral Costs: On Managing Mass Imprisonment in the United States’, Studies in Political Economy, 69: 19–30.

Wacquant, L. (2010a) ‘Crafting the Neoliberal State: Workfare, Prisonfare and Social Insecurity’, Sociological Forum, Vol. 25(2): 197–220.

Wacquant, L. (2010b) ‘Prisoner Re-entry as Myth and Ceremony’, Dialectical Anthropology, Vol. 34: 605–620.


Desistance: an inside view

This guest post comes from Kris MacPherson who has recently completed a criminology degree with the Open University and who is currently completing a sentence in a Scottish prison. If you’d like to get in touch with Kris about his post, please leave a comment with your contact details and I’ll pass them on.

One of the most frequently voiced problems in relation to desistance, according to Maruna (2012), is the difficulty in differentiating between desistance from committing crime and a pause between criminal acts. Using the example of stealing a car, Maruna asks if a person who steals a car on Friday and does not commit another offence for the rest of the day could classify as desistance. What if the car thief refrains from taking another vehicle for a month or a year? [When] Is this desistance?

Let’s break it down.

For some people, the term ‘desistance’ conjures an image of repentance and desire for atonement on the part of the ‘offender. For that person, it signifies the realisation that s/he has value and potential to be something other than a scar on the social flesh of his/her community. In this sense, the word implies a permanent and complete realisation that the previous pattern of behaviour is damaging and hurtful to not only for victims and their families but also the families of those engaged in criminal activity.  The loved ones of those who offend are often, in fact, their last victims.

As Maruna’s example (above) suggests, someone involved in criminal behaviour who then goes through a period of committing no crime at all has not necessarily desisted from crime. In fact, this person, for whatever reason, may simply be ‘winding their neck in’! Legally speaking, the place where they live (or offend) might have had an intense police presence and/or been saturated with CCTV (‘jailbait’, to use a colloquialism), or other life events such as physical incapacitation or illness may possibly have prevented the person from perpetrating further acts.  Desistance then may imply or require a particular attitude as well as a pattern of crime-free conduct.

In the academic study of serial murder, a person who commits a series of murders with gaps in between homicides has certainly not desisted in between killings. These apparently crime-free periods in between murders are referred to as time intervals or, previously, cooling off periods (Salfati et al., 2012). However, we know from the literature (Salfati et al., 2012; Douglas, 2006) that these people involved in these types of extreme offending do not desist during the ‘time interval’. They can’t be classed as desisting simply because they haven’t been caught or the police have not recorded an offence. Post-apprehension, people confess to trolling, stalking, burglaries and other behaviour in between murders (how else could they find victims?). Therefore, these time intervals are not as crime-free as one would like to think.

The idea of a ‘time interval’ could be applied to the (apparently) crime-free gaps in the careers of people involved in less extreme forms of offending. Can their ‘lulls’ only be classed as a time interval in between convictions? How else can we define a period of ‘crime-free’ behaviour? It is logical to postulate that even a ‘career criminal’ does not go through his/her life committing crimes every minute of every day. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that there are gaps in between offences, however short/long they may be.

One could argue that what makes mere time intervals different from genuine desistance is the notion that the person experiencing the time interval still retains a criminal or criminalised identity. He/she continues to associate with other people actively involved offending (whether these offences were recorded and the offender apprehended/punished is irrelevant). S/he has not seriously considered changing or intended to make a complete break with their criminal lifestyle like those who are dedicated to desistance. Those who commit crime as a way of life usually have a specific criminal forte/proclivity in the same way that people who are addicted to drugs have a particular preference for a specific substance. They still may use other substances but there is one particular drug that they ‘prefer’.  It is often much the same with those living a criminal lifestyle.

For me then, desistance actually implies that one has made a conscious decision to break from a criminogenic life pattern, lead a completely different lifestyle, and continue to do so rather than simply passing through a period of refraining from committing crime. But how does a person arrive at the realisation that crime is a destructive process, affecting their own lives as well as those of others? Do they simply wake up one morning and make a spontaneous decision to change? Or is there something more gradual and ongoing at play?  The latter seems more plausible.

My own experience with desistance came after a long, gradual period of reflection on my past and exposure to academic study while serving a rather protracted period of incarceration. This particular spell wasn’t my first time in prison as I had spent another term in a young offenders’ institute. How I chose to spend this period of incarceration as opposed to the other is very different. Could it be argued that I was ‘desisting’ from crime since I was under lock and key? I would say that incapacitation does not amount to desistance, especially if you still harbour the old pro-criminal sentiments and consider these as part of your identity. Could my behaviour in the community be classified as desisting in between committing crimes pre-sentences? I would say no because I still harboured a certain self-image in which criminality was at the core. While prison does incapacitate a person, it does not completely diminish his offending capabilities. It merely hinders them.

For example, a person can still assault another person in prison. S/he can still use/sell drugs and even attempt to escape – all of which are still judged criminal offences in the eyes of the legal system. With the advent of technology like theInternet and mobile phones, the scope of prisoner-perpetrated criminality is widened if the prisoner in question has in his possession (or access to) a mobile phone. This could include intimidating court witnesses and arranging to have prohibited articles smuggled into the establishment. The prison economy is much more lucrative given that prices can increase exponentially, maximising profit. For example, an ounce of Class-A drugs could be bought in the community from anywhere between £600 and £800, depending on one’s source (referred to as ‘mates rates’). This same ounce, if broken down, could easily generate a total of £5,000 in prison, give or take. A phone purchased for £500 in the community could easily fetch between £2,000 and £3,000 inside prison.

The fact that such acts occur in prison does not make them any less criminal than if they were committed in the community. It is the fact that they are contained that may makes them seem less criminal — or it could be the fact that because they are offender-on-offender crimes that makes the public less concerned about the ramifications. Tabloid media portrayals of ‘offenders’ exacerbate the problems of those returning to the community from prisons, depicting them as undeserving and dangerous criminals for whom transformation is impossible. For a small minority, these portrayals may be accurate. However, the majority of people in prison are people with serious issues who can be helped if given the proper support and guidance.

Significant numbers of people liberated from prison are homeless, compounded by the fact they have little/no chance of employment. Unless employment is guaranteed by a family/friend willing to give a chance to someone leaving prison, a situation is created in which the person is signposted towards committing crime to sustain himself/herself because they are marginalised to the extent where they have no money or prospects. How could one even contemplate desistance in such a climate never mind practice it? If desistance is a process or a pathway then we must try to comprehend its destination (McNeill, 2015). Perhaps the final destination in the desistance process is the acknowledgement by society and state that reform has been realised or is at least possible, leading to ‘restoration of citizenship’ and reintegration into society as an all-inclusive and productive member.

Surely, this is the summit of the desistance mountain.

Some European countries have laws where an offender is classed as rehabilitated after a specific period in the community with no new convictions (Scottish Executive, 2012). An improvement to the Rehabilitation of Offenders (Scotland) Act 1974 vis-à-vis the reform of prisoners who have maintained desistance, I am sure, would go a long way. Imagine being stopped by police officers who radio base to ascertain whether you are wanted or have previous convictions (a common occurrence for some). The answer they receive states you do have convictions but are classified as rehabilitated under the amendment to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Wouldn’t this change embedded attitudes towards ‘ex-offenders’? It is the responsibility of the person to maintain desistance but other agencies have their own roles to play. If someone takes the path of desistance but society closes all of the appropriate doors in his/her face, then where will this lead? Granted desistance is a process but it can definitely be argued that the more supports and protective factors a person has in his/her life, the less likely he/she will view crime as an appropriate response to a given situation (protective factors are individually-specific – having a child, supportive parents, making pro-social contacts, etc).

There are those for whom prison is the only alternative. However, someone who commits to desistance should be given the required support. Therefore, prisoners are not the only ones who have a role to play. We all do.

Reforming me, reforming ‘us’

This guest post comes from Alejandro Rubio Arnal, a doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow.

The aim of this post is to summarise the autoethnographic part of my research project for the MRes Criminology at the University of Glasgow (see Rubio Arnal 2016 for full dissertation) in order to examine how and to what extent my personal experience of engaging in the Distant Voices festival music events encouraged me to reform my dispositions towards people in prison or people who have been in prison.

Distant Voices was a public festival run by Vox Liminis in collaboration with the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. Amongst other things, the festival had the purpose of facilitating dialogue about punishment and reintegration between audience participants, artists, criminologists, people with convictions, their families and criminal justice practitioners (McNeill 2016, Vox Liminis 2014). My research was driven by the conviction that, taking into account the current state of affairs (Rock 2010), it is necessary to explore and contribute to that part of criminology that tries to go beyond academia and into the public sphere (Loader & Sparks 2010). I wanted to contribute to public criminology by studying how people experienced engaging in a public festival which explored what happens when ‘human stories, ideas and emotions’ about crime related issues are shared (Vox Liminis, no date).

Though encouraging people to reconsider their dispositions towards people in or after prison was not a direct aim of the festival, when conducting my initial analysis of the ethnographic study, I realised that the experience of engaging in the festival, had indeed encouraged me to reform my own dispositions (I use the word ‘dispositions’ to suggest something broader and deeper than just ‘attitudes’).

During the first music event, which took place on 6th November 2015, nine individuals participated in a songwriting process facilitated by Vox Liminis and led by two professional musicians. Two of the participants, who are regular collaborators in Vox events, had experience of being in prison and being released. During this event, the musicians shared five songs that had been written in prisons. We were then invited, either in groups or individually, to write a song in response, with the help of the facilitators and musicians. After we spent much of the day working on our songs, they were recorded. At the end we all listened to and talked about each of the new songs. IN and through this process, a very special atmosphere of cordiality, familiarity, trust and affection was created.

When reading my fieldnotes about that day, something became very clear to me: My experience of participating in this workshop encouraged me to reconsider my dispositions towards people in or after prison, and to reform them as a consequence. I believe that what encouraged me to do so was the discovery or reinforcement of the humanity of people in or after prison — — and the ways in which feelings of empathy towards them were nurtured.

This discovery or reinforcement of humanity and evocation of empathy took place during/through three different music-mediated dialogic episodes: (1) indirect dialogue with a person who had previously been in prison during the introductory part of the workshop, (2) in-depth reflection within myself focused on comparing a personal experience of returning home with a person’s re-entry from prison, and (3) direct dialogue with a person who had been in prison, ‘Lindsay’, during the writing process. These experiences made it apparent to me in a new way that people in or after prison are people who may have hope and may be positive about their future (during the first episode), that they had a life before being in prison (during the second episode) and that they have people outside prison who they miss (first episode). This evoked feelings of sympathy and empathy in me towards them, made me realize that they are not different from me, and encouraged me to feel admiration for their courage in facing situations that seem difficult to me. The most important episode of my participation in this event, and probably of the whole festival was meeting Lindsay. I believe one of the main reasons for my reconsideration of my dispositions towards her in particular, and towards people who have faced imprisonment and release in general, is the type of interaction we had: talking directly, looking into her eyes, face to face.

The second music event, ‘Distant Voices: In Song’ took place at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. During it, professional musicians played 22 songs that had been written by people in or after prison, prison officers, criminologists and criminal justice workers. Listening to those songs, and interacting with Julian, who had previously been in prison and who now collaborates with Vox, encouraged me to reconsider my dispositions because firstly it gave me the opportunity to discover more aspects of the human experience of imprisonment and release that were previously unknown to me. Secondly, it increased my level of empathy towards people with these experiences. The feeling of being part of the event, and the fact of already knowing some of the people whose songs were performed during the concert were also influential aspects.

Despite having spent seven years studying criminology and two of them researching about reintegration, participating in this festival gave me the opportunity to confront the human side of people affected by imprisonment that was, until that moment, unknown to me. That happened during/through different types of music-mediated dialogic episodes/moments. This is what made the difference, and encouraged me to reform my dispositions.

These results, which were similar for those other participants that I spoke to who had also reconsidered their dispositions, albeit on a small scale, come from one of the first research studies of art-mediated dialogue about crime related issues. They highlight the important role that music-mediated dialogue can have in encouraging people to reconsider their dispositions and the important role of empathy and other emotions during this process. Through encouraging the co-exploration of different views and meanings that people attach to the world (Escobar 2011), engaging in music-mediated dialogue seems to counter stigma by opening up new ‘knowledge’ and reducing the emotional distance that is both a consequence of stigma and key to its maintenance.

Apart from this main finding, there is a broader issue which would also require more research: According to the data (not only about my own experience but also about others’ experiences) it seems that people do not suddenly reform their dispositions. Although turning points may be needed in order to challenge certain assumptions, in order to reform their dispositions individuals go through a process of reconsideration which is characterised by being quite reflective, and in which their previous beliefs are brought into question.

You might think that this sounds a lot like a rehabilitative process; what is different is that this is about (all of) ‘us’ changing, not ‘them’ changing. Perhaps the key lessons from my experience are about how experiences of music-mediated dialogue can dissolve the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

[Alejandro can be contacted at:]


Burawoy, M. (2004) Public sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas, and Possibilities. Social Forces. 82(4): 1603-1618.

Escobar, O. (2011). Public Dialogue and Deliberation: A communication perspective for public engagement practitioners. (Available online at: [Accessed 29/08/2016]).

Indermaur, D., Roberts, L., Spiranovic, C., Mackenzie, G., & Gelb, K. (2012). A Matter of Judgement: The effect of information and deliberation on public attitudes to punishment. Punishment & Society. 14(2): 147-165.

Loader, I., & Sparks, R. (2010). What is to be Done with Public Criminology? Criminology & Public Policy. 9(4): 771-781.

McNeill, F. (2016). Distant Voices: Coming Home — Creativity, Reflexivity and Research. 2016. European Social Work Research Association Annual Conference. (Available online at: [Accessed 29/08/2016]).

Rock, P. (2010). Comment on “Public Criminologies”. Criminology & Public Policy. 9(4): 751-767.

Rubio Arnal, A. (2016). Listening to Distant Voices. (Available online at: [Accessed 11/01/2017])

Vox Liminis (2014). Vox Liminis Annual Report 2013-2014. (Available online at: [Accessed 29/08/2016])

Vox Liminis (No date). Distant Voices. (Available online at: 29/08/2016])

We Are All Criminals

This guest post comes from Emily Baxter, the genius (we would suggest!) behind a website in the USA which has found an innovative and engaging way to challenge the ‘othering’ of people with convictions…

waac2 waac1

One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. Due to deep and undeniable race and class disparities that permeate every stage of our criminal and juvenile justice systems, people of color, indigenous people, and poor people are more likely to carry that burden than their white, affluent counterparts. Records can stymie housing, employment, licensure, travel, civic participation and more. Permanently and publicly labeled ‘criminals,’ millions of already marginalized Americans find themselves locked out of countless opportunities to move on and move up.

One in four people has a criminal record; four in four have a criminal history.

I created a multi-media-based project that contends just that: We Are All Criminals uses first-person storytelling and compelling photography to call out the concepts of criminality, privilege, and punishment that have dominated our public discourse and private thought for decades.

WAAC is a storybank of people who have gotten away with crimes—predominately white and affluent ‘upstanding citizens’—who consider what life would be like had they been caught. These stories are juxtaposed with stories of people who were caught engaging in the same behavior, but who, tethered to their pasts, don’t have the luxury to forget.

I share these stories with the people that need to hear them most: lawyers, peace officers, policymakers, service providers, employers, and more—people who sit in judgement of others—and students of those disciplines. My hope is that once people can acknowledge a shared criminality, they can better appreciate a common humanity.

While WAAC touches upon many sociological themes, the ability to contextualize one’s own behavior is one of my favorites. When crime is a private memory rather than a public record, it’s easy to justify the behavior. I was young; I was drunk; I was stupid; I was in a bad relationship; no one got hurt; I gave it back anyway; it wasn’t my idea.


When sharing these stories, I ask audiences to recognize the context they allow their private memories, and understand that the same context may have existed for someone who was caught. I stress, time and again, that crime is an event in a life course: it’s something someone does, not who someone is.

That is, I have committed theft, but I am not forever a thief.

Or, in the words of WAAC’s participants:



We did it for the moment, for the thrill. But I never thought I’m a bad guy. If you come to think of yourself as criminal, you’ve passed a threshold. You get onto a trajectory that’s a bad path. Thankfully, I wasn’t caught and I didn’t consider myself bad– nor did others.

Experimenting with delinquency is normal – and so is giving it up. How many kids get a police record, or a longer record, for the same or even fewer criminal acts my friends and I did?

I have that story. Everybody has that story. If you find someone who claims they’ve never committed a crime, either they’re lying, they have a poor memory, or they’re very abnormal.



In my growing up, the whole social attitude toward juvenile behavior was very different than it seems to be now. I mean, I’m confident that some of the stunts that we pulled as kids— if we did the same things now, we would be in the court system and probably incarcerated faster than we could blink.



Looking back, I can contextualize it. I was lost and wanted to be accepted. I lacked self-confidence and self-worth. I was easily influenced by people around me. that person who tipped the porta potty, that wasn’t me, but I didn’t know that then.



You know what’s interesting? These were transferable skills.

The plotting, attention to detail, execution, delayed gratification, and, hey, even an interest in criminology. Maybe it’s no surprise that we are now police chiefs, college professors, coaches, nurses, and victims’ advocates.



You know, if I’d been caught, I’d just be getting out. I wouldn’t have this job now. I would not have met my husband. Everything that I have in life, it’s been since then. What if that were taken away from me? What if I never had it?



It’s crazy. I’m having trouble remembering things that I did that were illegal, I just don’t think about it.

You know, with the college mindset, you do these things that in the morning are a funny story—nothing you think of as illegal.

Overall, I suppose I’ve done some pretty stupid things—but none of it defines who I am.



This story isn’t about bad things I got away with; it’s about being a kid and the presumption of innocence that a lot of people don’t ever get.

Once there’s a record, every youthful misadventure adds further proof that you need more punishment.

To read these stories in full, find more, and perhaps share your own, head to If you’re interested in learning more about the project or hosting a WAAC talk, send me an email at I’d love to hear from you.

Migration, Offending and Desistance

My name is Melinda Bajo. I am a Doctoral Researcher at Kingston University in London. The research that I am carrying out for my PhD aims to explore experiences of offending and desistance for people who have migrated to the UK (and are now living in England or Wales). Basically, my study examines the impact of being a migrant on the journey from offending towards a life without a crime.

I aim to interview 30 participants in England and Wales, who are adult men and who have experienced both migration and offending. I am keen to talk to people who are foreign nationals with strong ties in the UK and/or were born overseas and finished their secondary education in their country of origin. I want to include people who have committed various kinds of different offences. The aim is to allow people with these experiences to articulate their thoughts and experiences of offending and stopping offending in order to develop a broader picture of the issues affecting ‘migrant ex-offenders’ in England and Wales.

The length of the interviews is expected to be between 1-2 hours. All interviews will be anonymous and treated confidentially. I will use pseudonyms for participants to protect their identities. The interviews will be taped and transcribed (typed up). If an interview takes place in a language other than English, all data will be translated by me into English. The data will be stored on my PC until the completion of my PhD. I will encrypt all folders with password protection and I will be the only person that can access this data.

My hope is that the study will help us to develop a better understanding of migrants’ experiences during their offending and their process of ending offending. Furthermore, it might help us to find out possible ways to develop the helpful sorts of support for people in this situation.

If you have experience of migration to the UK and offending, and would like to discuss taking part in the research, please contact me via e-mail: or at the following address:

c/o Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Kingston University, Penrhyn Road, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT1 2EE

The research us being supervised by Associate Professor Marisa Silvestri and Dr.Francis Dodsworth and has been approved by Kingston University’s research ethics committee.

Criminal Research: Writing wrongs in the creative arts in prisons — 22nd June 2016

This post comes from Ella Simpson at Bath Spa University 

Creative and autobiographical writing have existed in the modern prison since as early as Oscar Wilde’s penning of De Profundis and contemporary literature has more than a few shelves given over to the ‘nick lit’ of a more recent prison population.

The value of writing in prison is supported by a number of prisoners who have become professional writers and a number of professional writers who have facilitated prisoners’ creativity. This anecdotal evidence, however, is often lost in academic research that aims to evaluate the impact of the arts through ‘scientific’ measurement.

This day of workshops and discussions aims to bring together an array of academics from the humanities, social sciences and the arts with some of the most experienced prison writing practitioners in the UK and criminal justice professionals in a bid to move beyond the binary of reconviction studies and unearth the foundations of an alternative, writer-led approach to prison arts research.

Sessions will include:

The Art of Psychopathy – an exploration of the fact and fiction of the mentally disordered offender.

The Art of Empathy – the relational dimensions of creative arts in prisons.

The Art of Release – how probation might inform art and art, probation.

Prisoners’ Stories – Writers in Prison Foundation present a reading of writing by prisoners.

Confirmed speakers include:

Sharon Clarke (Literary Producer, Bristol Old Vic)

Michael Crowley (WIPF and Lecturer in Creative Writing, Sheffield Hallam University)

Clive Hopwood (Co-Director, Writers in Prisons Foundation)

Dr Alison Lee (Neuropsychologist, Coordinator of Graduate Studies in Psychology, BSU)

Dr Catherine Morgan (Course Leader, BSc Criminology, BSU)

Dr Agata Vitale (Senior Lecturer in Abnormal and Clinical Psychology, BSU)

This is a free, pre-conference event leading into this year’s Captivating Criminality Conference at  Bath Spa University’s Corsham Court campus.

Details on how to Book here

For further details contact Ella Simpson –

Distant Voices: Coming Home

I had the honour this morning of giving a talk at the European Social Work Research Association Annual Conference in Lisbon (yes, the sun is shining). My title was ‘Distant Voices: Coming Home — Creativity, Reflexivity and Research’. People were very kind about the talk and asked me to make it available, so here is the audio recording and the PowerPoint (which has 2 songs embedded within it).

Distant Voices: Coming Home (PowerPoint)

The talk (and the songs) may be of interest to readers of this blog, since they both emerge from a new (and developing) project that is a legacy of the Desistance Knowledge Exchange (and of this blog). One of the key messages of the workshops that we reported on this site a couple of years ago was that we needed to find ways to engage communities in rehabilitation, and to challenge public attitudes about punishment and reintegration.

The big question was: ‘How?’

The partial answer that I’ve been working on, with a host of collaborators, is through creative practices. That’s why I supported Alison Urie to set up Vox Liminis; a new Scottish charity that aims to bring creative practice to criminal justice and its reform. The research centre where I am based (SCCJR) has formed a collaboration with Vox around a project called Distant Voices. The presentation explains something of the genesis and development of Distant Voices since 2014. In particular it draws on the knowledge of Jo Collinson-Scott (aka Jo Mango) about popular music and participatory music-making, and on the knowledge of Oliver Escobar about participative and deliberative democracy, as well as on my own learning (and that of the whole Vox team) from the project so far.

In essence, we are trying to use the making and sharing of music to explore, practice and enable reintegration (or homecoming). Turning conventional understandings of rehabilitation on their head, we are interested in how and why citizens and communities meet returning citizens (people leaving prison or community punishment) with hospitality or hostility.

As well as exploring the evidence base for and rationale of our approach, the talk includes two songs written in related workshops. One of them (Pixellated Pictures) is performed by Jo (and others); it was written in a workshop in a women’s prison and recorded and released last year on an EP called ‘Distant Voices – Silent Seconds’ by Vox Liminis (you can download it through all the usual services). The other (Blackface) was co-written by ‘TJ’ and me in a workshop reflecting on people’s experiences of being supervised. You can find out more about that workshop and hear all of the songs produced here: Seen and Heard. The version in the presentation was (home) recorded yesterday by Louis Abbott, who also led the workshop (thanks Louis!).

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so comment away…!

P.S. I also made mention of Beth Weaver’s excellent book Offending and Desistance and of an important new article by Briege Nugent and Marguerite Schinkel: The pains of desistance. You really don’t want to miss these…

Research encounters: You, me and home

“Would you like to write a blogpost?”, Professor Fergus McNeill asked me. It could not be a better moment. I think that December 2015 has been, by far, the most inspirational period of my life. Oh sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I am Sofie Van Roeyen, a Belgian researcher conducting a PhD at Ghent University under the supervision of Professor Freya Vander Laenen. My PhD is about desistance in mentally ill offenders. I conduct qualitative research in which mentally ill offenders are central and the focus lies on the strengths and capacities of mentally ill offenders.

With the purpose of elaborating the conceptual part of my PhD, I thought it would be a good idea to go on a research visit to the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research in December. A wee month is very short, but it was perfectly intense. Meeting professor Fergus McNeill seemingly had a big influence on my thinking about desistance, and reinforced me to keep doing research the way I was doing it.

There are many things I would like to share with you, but I choose a topic that I am not used to writing about and that is quite personal: the connection between my respondents and me. Not me merely as a researcher, but me personally, as a human being. As the stories of mentally ill offenders themselves are the focal point of my research, I got the opportunity to talk with mentally ill offenders. As a researcher you are supposed to listen to your respondents and let them talk about their experiences. Approaching respondents as such sounds very respectful and is very respectful, but at the same time creates a feeling of imbalance. They share their deepest feelings with you, and in the end of the interview you thank them for their time and say goodbye. As a researcher, this is not the end because you start transcribing and analyzing the stories they share with you, to enable yourself to retell their integrated stories in an article and/or book. In contrast, as a person, this is the only moment you get so close to your respondents. In respect to all my respondents, and the imbalanced feeling I personally get, I am writing this blogpost. This is, I guess, a way to give something back to them.

People tend to differentiate themselves from people who offend or from people suffering a mental illness. In my opinion, this differentiation is not well-founded at all. Listening to the life stories of my respondents, it appeared not hard for me at all to understand their experiences. We all tend to experience the same kind of changes and desire the same things in life. One of my main findings is that my respondents do not want to win the lottery, but they just want a normal life. Their happiness lies in small, surmountable things. They try to construct a new narrative that gives meaning to their lives.

The best way to describe the similarities between my respondents’ stories and my own story, could probably be built around the metaphor of ‘home’. Home not as a static space which consists of four walls and a roof, but a dynamic concept, which ensures a secure feeling and where you experience feelings not tangible anywhere else. Hearing the talk of Sam King about identity and narratives in desistance in Lisbon (Portugal) at the ‘International Seminar – Juvenile Delinquency: Desistance Process, Identity and Social Bonds’ (10-11 December 2015), this idea got strengthened. Purely coincidental, he touched upon ‘home’ in his talk. For desisters, ‘home’ might relate to finding a sense of self and a sense of achievement and empowerment.

In 2015 I have gone through changes in different life domains. This personal journey made me realize the similarities between my respondents’ stories and my own story. I was on my way to find new meaning in life, a purpose to live. I felt valleys and peaks, and respectively felt sadness and happiness. I found myself for a long time in a liminal space, between unsuccessfully returning home and successfully finding my new home, searching for my security. The same spot where many of my respondents find themselves. At the same time, I think a lot of my social network members also identify themselves as being somewhere in this liminal space. Anyway, I am convinced that at some point in time everyone will be facing this insecure change process. The use of the metaphor ‘home’ as the similarity between my respondents’ stories and my own, is rooted in the beginning of November: new love. I was inspired by this change in my life to get to an in depth understanding of ‘home’. After all kinds of important life changes, I managed to find my home, and since then, it is the first time I really feel at home.

I think the key is to open yourself for the idea that we are all experiencing the same journey, which makes it easier for everyone to understand ‘the other’. In the end, we all want to find our home. To go through your own insecure change process, I guess, the start is to accept that such periods do exist on your journey. Happy New Year and good luck in finding your home in 2016!